CAMBRIDGE, England — The Chinese government has been issuing more regulations to control the use of the Internet. As with the earlier ones, there are no surprises. They simply tidy up what was already accepted practice and add nothing new. It is still the slow bureaucratic machine catching up with reality. For example, last week Sina.com received permission to function as an Internet content provider, something it has been doing for two years already.
Over the last year or so I have attended six international conferences, three in China and three in the Europe, which have had as their main or only topic the development of the Internet in China.
The focus of those in China was on the opportunities the new technology is opening up: for example, increasing and speeding up information flows, improving communications between family members and other social groups (giving birth to the first signs of modern civil society in bulletin boards and chat rooms), allowing wider participation in modern China as with the stock markets, and expanding opportunities for education via distance-learning programs.
Ways in which the government can improve its links with the people, making government more transparent, and ways in which Chinese industry can become more internationally aware and more competitive are also topics discussed in Chinese conferences on the Internet.
The underlying theme of those in Europe, however, tends to be how the government of China is preventing its citizens from benefiting from free access to the Web and how it uses the new technology to monitor and control their activities. There also tends to be a lot of discussion about how the Chinese government censor what Chinese “Netizens” can access on the Internet.
It is true that the Chinese government monitors Internet traffic using the six portals through which all traffic to and from all Chinese Internet service providers must go. The government uses technology developed by Western companies to do this. But so do many other countries.
In Britain, the government is in the process of taking powers to intercept and monitor the Internet activities of individuals, in spite of the protests of human-rights groups. The issue is why does a government want to monitor the Internet activities of its citizens. The British government says that the purpose of its seeking the monitoring powers is to identify organized crime activity. Other Western governments are collaborating on this and some also monitor the activities of extremist groups which threaten political and social stability.
The Chinese government would say the same. Few people would want to argue that identifying and monitoring the activities of drug dealers, slave traders and illegal arms traders is a bad thing, whatever form that monitoring takes. Extremist groups are different.
In the case of China, and other countries such as Singapore, the concept of an extremist group is somewhat different from that in the West. While the governments in the West are most concerned about groups that threaten the democratic rights of other citizens, in China the government is concerned with groups that are pressing for the introduction of democratic rights. It is increasingly acceptable in China to criticize the government and its acts, even on the Internet, but it is still taboo to criticize the Communist Party and its leaders, especially if this involves questioning the right of the party to govern or to suggest an alternative party should be allowed to govern.
Similarly with respect to censorship: China watchers in the West are concerned that the Chinese government is applying the same filtering of information the Chinese people can have access to on the Internet as it applies to other forms of media.
The government tries to block access to any sites that provide information that contradicts government policy, whether these expound the views of separatist movements such as the Free Tibet movement, the truth about NATO activities, for example, in Kosovo, or groups that deny or just question the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s control of the Chinese government (such as Falun Gong). Such censorship compares to, for example, the recent decision of Yahoo to censor French citizens’ access to sites in the United States selling “hate material” such as Nazi memorabilia, in response to a demand from the French government.
None of this should surprise us. Most governments monitor the activities of their citizens and many censor the information available to them. Being a communist government that attains power by force and continues in power without democratic legitimacy, the activities that the Chinese government wishes to monitor and the information flows it does not want its citizens to have are simply different from those that worry other governments.
But that is a matter for the Chinese people and their overseas friends. What is of concern to all of us, however, is the indications that the Chinese are considering using the Internet aggressively, maybe even as a weapon of war.
At a conference at the London School of Economics recently, Dr. Christopher Rene Hughes, an international politics specialist at the school, told us how after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade the Beijing municipal authorities set up a “Sacred Sovereignty” Web site where people could express their outrage. The e-mail addresses of NATO governments and political parties were posted there and in party-controlled newspapers. Successful hacking attacks were reported with “pride.”
Hughes also reported how after then president of Taiwan Lee Teng-hui suggested that relations between Taiwan and the mainland should be on a “special state-to-state” basis, “more than 7,000 attacks were launched against public Web sites on the island.” And when a conference was held in Osaka to discuss whether or not the Nanjing Massacre actually occurred, “at one point some 1,600 strikes were launched [from China] against the Bank of Japan’s computer system within the space of seven minutes.”
At the same LSE conference, Damon Bristow of the Royal United Services Institute told us how the Chinese defense establishment has a research and development program on Internet warfare, some of it in collaboration with Western (including British) companies supplying relevant hardware and software. Now that worries me.
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